Democracy Lab

A Place of One's Own

Land is more than real estate. In many parts of the world, it’s the key to survival, belonging, and identity.

Here are some of things that have been happening around the world, of late:

The Colombian government's negotiations with the group behind that country's 50-year-old insurgency have broken down. Kenyans are preparing for their next presidential election. Israeli settlers and Palestinians have clashed on the West Bank. Chinese villagers are railing against the government.

These headlines might seem to have little in common. Yet there's something that unites them: the longing for land.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is talking about a peace agreement with the FARC, the guerrilla group born out of demands for land reform back in the early 1960s. Fittingly enough, land is also a sticking point in the current negotiations: Both sides accuse the other of displacing peasants from their farms.

In Kenya, where inequitable distribution of land has been a major bone of contention for at least the past two decades, the issue has been the source of some vicious mud-slinging in the recent presidential debates. The country's most recent constitution holds out the prospect of wide-ranging land reform, but Kenyans are still waiting to see it implemented.

In China, meanwhile, residents of the village of Wukan, who staged a much-noted protest against illegal land seizures in 2011, now say that the government is going back on its promises to return what was taken. And nine Palestinians were wounded in a clash with settlers after the Israelis chased a local man off his land in the West Bank village of Kusra.

Conflicts over land have existed pretty much ever since people began settling down in one place. Yet that doesn't mean that disputes are part of the natural order of things. There are many countries in the world where settled traditions of clear property rights protect against the most egregious abuses. But there are far too many other places where land scarcity, powerful business interests, muddled laws, or entrenched social inequality make fights over land inevitable.

Economists tend to view land as another natural resource, like oil or timber. There is some truth to this, of course. In places where farming is still the main form of economic activity, whether your family is rich or poor can depend to a large degree on your access to land.

But land is never just about economics. Claims to land are wrapped in notions of identity and belonging, ownership and justice. Take someone's oil or timber away and they'll be angry with you, but you can probably placate them with the equivalent in cash. Take someone's land away and they'll never forgive you. "Most group political identities involve a very strong sense of relationship to the land," says political scientist Derek Hall of Canada's Wilfrid Laurier University (whose new book is entitled, simply, Land). "‘Relationship' isn't really even the word. People will say, ‘We're part of this land.' That can often make struggles over land particularly intense."

Even today, disagreements over land all too often end in bloodshed. Witness the massacre a few weeks ago in a corner of Kenya plagued by rival property claims -- or the murder of two Honduran peasants who were protesting illegal land grabs by military-backed oligarchs. The conflict between Japan and China over a few small uninhabited islands in the East China Sea even has experts worrying about the possibility of war.

People in the developed world sometimes have trouble appreciating the centrality of the problem. True, even countries with well-established property rights have their periodic controversies over eminent domain. Or they can find themselves confronting impassioned demands from indigenous peoples who claim land as recompense for colonialism.

And yet such controversies are minor compared with the predicament of a place like Burma, where two-thirds of the population live in the countryside and thus depend on the land for their livelihoods. The political liberalization that started there two years ago has been accompanied, unfortunately, by a rash of illegal land seizures (most likely orchestrated by cronies of the former military junta, who are eager to grab while the grabbing's good).

If the current government can't solve the problem, it will confront both an increasingly rebellious citizenry and a community of foreign investors unwilling to put money into a place where assurances of ownership don't seem to count for much. Failure to solve these problems could easily subvert the progress of Burma's nascent democracy. Fair access to land is a major precondition for a healthy polity. (The same is true of democratic India, where unequal distribution of land sustains another long-running insurgency by the Maoist Naxalites.)

Similar patterns repeat themselves around the world. Despite China's breakneck urbanization, the fate of the country's reform process depends to a crucial extent on whether the Communist Party can prevent local governments from conducting expropriations, which have been fueled by a system in which local governments finance their budgets through the sale of land. (Add rampant corruption, and you get a powerful set of incentives for an epidemic of evictions that drives much of China's simmering domestic unrest.) Hall notes that up to 60 million peasants have been displaced from their homes between 1990 and 2002. That adds up to quite a potential for discontent.

China's Communist leaders, whose revolution triumphed in 1949 thanks to the support of rebellious peasants, are surely in a position to appreciate the risks of skewed land distribution. The ownership of land by a privileged few is one of the most frequent triggers for rural insurgencies. (And the occupation and expropriation of a vanquished foe's land is a great way to ensure that proper peace will never come -- as Israelis ought to have figured out by now.)

Just to make matters even more complicated, now we have the burgeoning phenomenon of corporations buying up huge tracts of land in poor countries. In Liberia, for example, landless people are protesting big land purchases by palm oil companies from Malaysia and Indonesia. Land, in other words, is no longer a national problem, but increasingly one with a cross-border dimension. Hall points out that even plans for countering climate change ultimately entail compelling people to change their patterns of land use. In practical terms, he says, many policies designed to fight global warming amount to "paying people not to cut down trees on their land."

Policymakers in the developed world need to do a better job of appreciating the importance of this issue. It's possible to imagine many situations where implementing sensible land reform (including a full-fledged system of property rights) could do just as much to secure the future of democracy as election monitoring or advice on constitution-writing. This is a job that's too important to be left up to international financial institutions like the World Bank. It would be good to see individual countries pitching in with solutions, too. Washington, where are you?    

Photo by ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

It's Not About Us

Forget about the “war on terror.” The next few decades will be dominated by the bitter divide within Islam itself.

Most Westerners have heard that there's a difference between Sunnis and Shiites, but there are very few of us who can say what it is. I hate to be the one to bring this up, but it's probably time to start getting educated. Like it or not, the 21st century will be dominated by the political reverberations of the rivalry within Islam. The so-called "war on terror" pales in comparison.

If anyone had any doubt about this, just take a look at the recent headlines. Earlier this week, 89 Shiite Hazaras were killed in a bombing in the city of Quetta in Pakistan. Pakistani's 30 million Shiites (the second-largest population in the world, right after Iran) are increasing targets of persecution by the country's Sunni majority. Another attack five weeks earlier killed 100 other Shiites in the same city.

The very same day as the Quetta bombing, six car bombs and three roadside explosions killed 21 people in Baghdad. All of the attacks targeted Shiite neighborhoods. Some 60 percent of Iraqis are Shiites, but that only seems to fuel the sectarian violence there, which has been going on now for almost seven years. Most of the attacks have been staged by terrorist groups like al Qaeda, who regard Shiites as heretics and claim to speak for the Sunni minority that has dominated the political system for much of the country's modern history. Many Sunni Iraqis still haven't reconciled themselves to being ruled by Shiites, people they often don't consider to be "real" Muslims. Sunnis are now vowing to organize politically to defend their claims.

The Shiite-Sunni split is also a major factor in Syria's continuing civil war. President Bashar al-Assad belongs to the Alawite sect, which practices a distinct version of Islam that is close to Shiism. Even though the Alawites amount to a mere 15 percent of the population, they have long been a pillar of Assad family rule. This sectarian factor has reinforced the Assad regime's close alliance with the Shiite regime in Tehran -- and also fuels the hatred felt by members of the conservative Sunni majority towards the regime in Damascus.

So why should non-Muslims care? Because the dynamic of mutual hatred and distrust between the two camps shows every sign of intensifying -- and given that 1 billion believers are caught up within this theological and demographical battle, the rest of us are bound to feel the shock waves. (The United States, for example, continues to prop up the Sunni royal families in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, both of which are still suppressing lingering Shiite rebellions by the most brutal of means. And let's not forget Iran's efforts to build the first Shiite nuclear bomb.)

The differences between Shiites and Sunnis go back almost to the dawn of Islam itself. The crucial distinction has to do with the nature of religious authority. Sunnis essentially believed that the leader of the Muslim community, the caliph, should be chosen from among its members. (In the early days, they were usually selected from the original group of companions of the Prophet Mohammed.) Shiites were those who insisted that the leader could only come from the line of Mohammed's direct descendants, and they soon came to challenge the caliphs' right to leadership. The dispute took a fateful turn for the worse when Hussein ibn Ali, the Shiites' leader and the Prophet's grandson, refused to pledge allegiance to the caliph Yazid, and died at the hand of the caliph's troops in the battle of Karbala in 680 -- igniting an intensely emotional narrative of injustice and martyrdom that still infuses Shiite thinking today. (Take a look at this video for a taste.)

Yet until just a few decades ago these differences didn't seem to matter much (not least because Shiites only make up a tenth or so of the world's Muslims, and tend to be dispersed across many countries, often as relatively small minorities). That changed dramatically, however, in 1979, when the Islamic Revolution in Iran suddenly installed a militant Shiite regime in one of the Middle East's most populous countries.

"This fundamentally upset the regional balance of power," says Olivier Roy, a leading scholar on Islam at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. By profiling itself as the new vanguard in the fight against Israel, says Roy, Iran was in a position to challenge the claims of hitherto dominant countries such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia. The Iranians also began sponsoring their sectarian cousins in places like Lebanon and Iraq. "So the Shiites became politicized," notes Roy. The trend accelerated after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which toppled Saddam Hussein and finally put representatives of the majority Shiites in power there for the first time (though the result can hardly be described as a triumph for democracy, given the authoritarian drift under current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.)

The other trend is what Roy calls "the Salafization" of Islam. The Salafis -- staunch religious conservatives who have much in common with the puritanical outlook of the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia -- have been steadily rising in influence around the Middle East over the past decade, a trend more recently reinforced by the Arab Spring. In 1959, Roy points out, a leading Sunni scholar published a fatwa that described Shiism merely as one of the recognized "schools" of Islam. Even the members of the Muslim Brotherhood have generally had relatively few negative things too say about Shiism. "But now we have new generation of salafi preachers who consider the Shiites to be heretics, who say that Shiites are not mainstream Muslims," says Roy. "And this is new."

Though all Salafis aren't necessarily militants, the anti-Shiite sentiment is one that they share with Sunni jihadist movements. No one hates the Shiites more than al Qaeda or the Taliban. And, indeed, the Iraqi branch of al Qaeda duly claimed responsibility for the recent bombings in Baghdad. (Iran, for its part, has seized upon the killings in Quetta to assail Islamabad for its failure to protect Pakistani Shiites.)

Now, it's certainly true that we shouldn't accept all narratives about Shiite-Sunni polarization at face value. In places like Iraq, sectarian distinctions are often blurred by intermarriage. Members of the opposition in Bahrain are fond of stressing that their fight against the monarchy is motivated less by religious sectarianism than by a longing for greater political rights -- an aim they share with many Sunnis in the country. (And yes, there's no question that the Bahraini royal family -- like certain other authoritarian regimes in the region -- has been happy to play up the sectarian card, eagerly ascribing any legitimate dissent to Iranian scheming.)

In the larger scheme of things, though, it's clear that sectarian polarization is a genuine and intensifying trend. Roy sees only two scenarios that might derail it. Reform of the revolutionary regime in Iran could theoretically moderate Tehran's role in fomenting Shiite activism abroad. And collapse of the Assad regime, followed by a "smooth transition in Syria," would deprive the Iranians of one of their most important regional partners and cut them off from access to their Hezbollah allies in Lebanon, thus forcing them to scale back their ambitions. Needless to say, neither of these possibilities appears especially likely any time soon. So we're probably well-advised to expect the worst.

Photo by BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images